Billy Connolly Has Had Parkinson’s For Years, And Now The Disease Is Taking A Terrible Toll On Him

When Scottish comedian Billy Connolly found out he had prostate cancer, his diagnosis was a one-two punch. Not only did he have cancer, but doctors had simultaneously discovered that he also had early-stage Parkinson’s disease. Five years later, the degenerative nerve condition was taking its toll on him. So much so, that his friends were beginning to notice the heartbreaking effects.

Connolly’s career took off in a strange fashion – at least, for a comedian on the rise. Transatlantic Records’ Nat Joseph had guided the Scot’s early success as a folk singer in the late 1960s. So, Joseph helped him to release two comedy albums in the early 1970s, a rare move for an unknown funnyman.

In spite of Connolly’s lack of fame before the album release, the two recordings helped him extend his fanbase far beyond his native Scotland. And, by 1975, his meteoric rise landed him on Parkinson, one of the U.K.’s top talk shows at the time.

ADVERTISEMENT

Before the recording, Connolly’s manager implored the funny man not to make one of his most risqué jokes while on the air with the show’s host, Michael Parkinson. However, the comedian ignored his manager’s advice – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Audiences loved the joke so much that, when Connolly returned to Scotland, people at the airport started to clap and cheer when they saw him. He also became fast friends with the host of the show. Not only that, but he would go on to make 15 appearances on Parkinson. “That program changed my entire life,” the comedian would later say.

ADVERTISEMENT

Connolly then went on to have an illustrious career in comedy. He performed stand-up, recorded albums and starred in film and TV shows for decades. In 2007 and 2010 he was voted number one on the list of the 100 greatest stand-ups, as decided by the British public. He was even knighted in 2017 for his work in the entertainment industry.

ADVERTISEMENT

Before the comedian earned that title, though, he was dealt a duo of devastating blows in 2013. The first came out of nowhere – he met a doctor in an Australian hotel lobby who noticed that Connolly was exhibiting some of the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Those can include tremors, slumped posture and changes in one’s voice.

ADVERTISEMENT

It was September of 2013 when the comedian received an official diagnosis, but it wasn’t just Parkinson’s Disease. Connolly also had prostate cancer, his doctor said, but they had caught it early. “When [the doctor] said, ‘First of all, you’re not gonna die, I was shocked,” Connolly told British newspaper The Guardian.

ADVERTISEMENT

Connolly also said that he took the news in stride. “It just happened. I think they’re very closely related, deep despair and laughing. And I wasn’t in any pain,” he explained to The Guardian. The month after his diagnosis, the comedian had surgery and was cancer-free.

ADVERTISEMENT

However, Connolly still had to deal with his Parkinson’s diagnosis, one that comes without a cure. Doctors can provide medications or perform surgeries that minimize symptoms, but the disease, which causes nerve cell loss and damage to the brain, affects each patient differently.

ADVERTISEMENT

Connolly spoke out about living with the disease in April of 2017, and how he tried not to let it put a damper on his day-to-day life. According to U.K. newspaper the Mirror, he said, “When I’m in front of people and performing, I don’t give it much attention.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In fact, Connolly has written a song called “A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On,” an ode to his disease that was a musical way to “stick two fingers up to it,” he said. But the tune’s title was also a clue to how his body was reacting to the degenerative disorder.

ADVERTISEMENT

“There’s a whole lot of shaking going on. It’s kind of weird, this instability. The only time it stops is when I’m in bed and then I can’t roll over. I’m like a big log,” Connolly said, adding that waking up brought him back to reality. “It’s the first thing I think about in the morning because getting out of bed is quite hard,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

For Connolly, it all felt like a test, since he could no longer play banjo or smoke cigars. “It seems to creep up on everything I like and take it away from me,” he said. But the comedian also revealed that he was “trying to stay on the light side because the dark side is unthinkable.”

ADVERTISEMENT

By August of 2018, though, Connolly’s good friend, Michael Parkinson – the talk show host who gave him his big break – said that the comedian’s iteration of the disease had manifested in a heartbreaking way. “The sadness of Billy now is that wonderful brain is dulled,” Parkinson revealed on British TV’s Saturday Morning With James Martin.

ADVERTISEMENT

Parkinson had traveled to New York to present Connolly, who lives in the US, with an award. The pair have four decades of history as friends – but the comedian struggled to place how he knew the talk show host.

ADVERTISEMENT

The chat show host said, “I saw [Connolly] recently, and it was very sad, because I was presenting him with a prize at an awards ceremony. We had an awkward dinner together, because I wasn’t quite sure if he knew who I was or not.” The comedian also “wasn’t sure where [the dinner] was or what context [it was being held in] at all.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The old friends did have one hopeful interaction, though, “We were walking out after the presentation to go down and have our picture taken, and he turned to me and put his hand on my shoulders,” Parkinson went on.

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, the dinner with Connolly had hurt Parkinson, who called the comedian “the best thing that happened to me on the show.” He also said, “To know someone as long as I knew and loved Billy… It was an awful thing to contemplate, that that had been taken from him in a sense.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Since then, Connolly has said that “coming to grips with the fact that it’s never going to go away” is the most difficult part of Parkinson’s, according to the BBC. But the comedian hasn’t given up hope.  He also said in October of 2018 that he had volunteered to be a “guinea pig” for stem cell research performed in search of a cure.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT